"Tom you need to break off!" Mantell's wingman, Gordon Pollard's warning radio call should have been enough.
But this thing could house Mantell's entire P-51 flight of four. Mantell looked at his altimeter. He was pushing the Mustang to its limit as he guided it past 19,000 feet. But he had to see it. It, it looked like some kind of damned inverted spinning top, almost glass-like except for the spinning lights beneath. Mantell felt rather than heard an increasingly high pitched humming, not piercing but rising up and then back down on a regular schedule, like a sine wave. He also believed that his quarry, however strange, was having problems of its own. It was maneuvering erratically and smoke or perhaps a type of fuel vapor was pouring out of the spinning ship.
"Screw it Gord! I'm going in for a closer look. This is no Russian; those dumbasses can't even get their plumbing right." This last Mantell said beneath his O2 mask. His Mustang was running out of sky, the little baby's engine was making no more airspeed. Mantell was aware of an uncomfortable feeling in his body. Damnit he had to fart!
He realized he was gaining on this unidentified flying object. That meant that at 23,000 feet and climbing while his airspeed needle rolled backwards, that this thing was slowing. Mantell went to a lean setting on the Mustang's engine while realizing that his vision was tunneled. He shook his head, struggling against his O2 mask.
"Christ, those, those are people!" Mantell exclaimed under his mask and then keyed his radio. "There are people in this thing!"
The thing, well it appeared transparent in places. Major Mantell could make out figures. They looked like people viewed from a distance. This thing wasn't American and it sure as hell wasn't Russian. He was close. Mantell tried clearing his head. He realized that seeing and distinguishing people meant that he was too close! He felt the impact throughout his body. The Mustang was falling. Mantell realized that he had been suffering from a lack of oxygen. It was his last thought as the Mustang, more falling debris than airplane, hit 20,000 feet and exploded.
"Well that's it then, another passed over major!" Major Edward Straker declared as he slammed his briefcase on the squadron scheduler's desk. Straker was a tall man, muscular yet thinly proportioned with a head full of hair so blonde as to be almost white. His eyes, the eyes of a hunter, were a piercing blue.
Captain Howard Moscovitz shook his head while looking up at his friend, instructor and senior, all the while studying next week's flying schedule, a block of times in a spiral bound notebook. "It's not Robin Olds' Air Force anymore sir." Moscovitz saw Ed's grimace, but Lieutenant Colonel Baxter, the First Fighter Squadron's new commander expected decorum out of his people. Normally Moscovitz would call Straker, Ed, especially when Ed was giving him hell about banking the F-4 aircraft during final approach.
Moscovitz nodded at the briefcase. "I bet, knowing you that there is a resumé in there for the majors. By the way, if you aren't otherwise busy Lieutenant Turner needs to be signed off this Friday, you available?"
Straker chuckled despite just being told by Baxter that his Air Force career was over. "You don't miss a beat?" Straker took out a pack of Marlborough's from his pocket and lit one up. He peered out of a window into Virginia's hazy summer day. "Yeah, I'll push some commercial junk, sexy stews trying to seduce me while I make a fortune."
"You told Mary yet Major Straker?" Moscovitz asked.
"She thinks it's wonderful. Regular schedules and such, you know she's always hated the demands of the service." Straker chewed bitterly on the thought. True Mary had hated the Air Force but she knew what Straker was while they had been dating. She saw and knew that many of his ribbons came from clandestine operations in Vietnam and lately the Middle East.
Yet it was the Baxter's that were to be Straker's downfall, a military that had become the will of feckless politicians. Straker cared little for politics, just wishing that their leaders, whatever their persuasion, would stick to a course of action. Baxter belonged to the new breed of back-steppers, flippers and wishy-washy non-decision makers. Manage, but heavens forbid you implement a plan.
"Well, maybe it's time to go sir," Moscovitz remarked. "That damned peanut farmer…" The captain trailed off. It was the very same thought that Straker had just had. Moscovitz thought that some political party could make things different. Straker just wanted them to do their duty.
"Okay, put me down for Friday, wouldn't want any of our single guys to be put out." Straker chuckled all the while sitting on a mass of bitterness.
"Didn't figure for a cross country did you sir?" Lieutenant Chris Turner asked Straker over the F-4's intercom.
"It's a great way of life," Straker remarked, playing upon the Air Force's latest recruiting slogan. This mission would push the bounds of crew duty day, starting as it had at 0700 local in Langley. It was now 1600. A quick hit from a KC-135 refueling tanker then blasting back to Langley would put them on the ground just shy of their legal 12 hours.
"I got the tanker on radar sir, turn 2-4-0 and slow to 300 knots." Straker followed his weapons officer's instructions, knowing that Turner was talking to the 135's navigator. His mind was elsewhere. Angered over his inability to progress in rank he nonetheless was thinking more about Mary's pregnancy. Maybe he should have married sooner. He would need that airline job now after his upcoming separation. Straker was almost forty, jobless and soon to be a father.
"Call the turn," Straker muttered under his O2 mask. He had a visual ID on their tanker and knew the makings of a bad rendezvous. This had that potential.
"Slow to 270 and turn to final heading," Turner proclaimed. Straker breathed a mental sigh of relief. He pulled back the throttles to slow their aircraft. The compressor stall slewed the fighter violently.
"Run the God damned stall checklist Wizo!" Straker ordered. He considered their options. They were near Dayton, Wright-Pat was near to them. Straker watched as the EGT in the right engine, that engine's exhaust gas temperature climbed beyond normal.
"I've alerted the tanker they are calling center boss!" Turner informed Straker. A serious young man, one of many blacks coming to what had been a white only profession, Straker had thought his only shortcoming was the flip manner in which he approached things.
The EGT spiked, within seconds Straker heard a loud bang. The left engine rolled back. "There was an airfield in Wright-Pat's space, 30 miles south of the main field. Snap me a vector for that!" Straker ordered.
"How do ya remember that! Okay, okay, there it is, turn 3-5-5." Turner's voice was icily calm. Straker turned the ailing plane and after plunging below 15,000 feet he could see the airfield. Unmarked as such he assumed that it was an old feeder field, possibly a leftover World War II maintenance field. Right now it was their only hope, ejection being a dubious proposition.
Trading altitude for airspeed Straker guided the now dead plane toward his hoped for landing strip. The right engine was dead and hydraulics were on auxiliary. He smiled when he saw that at 9,000 feet they were effectively lined up to land. That was good as the aircraft started to shudder.
"We're going to make it sir!" Turner's exclamation was as much encouragement as it was bravado. Things looked good for a busted bird but their luck hadn't been great during the last few minutes.
The F-4, no great maneuvering bird under power was like a rock with both its engines dead. Straker breathed a sigh of relief when the jet went below 7,000 feet. Premature he thought as the Phantom slewed violently to the right and started rolling.
"Time to leave!" Straker made this last pronouncement as he pulled down the face curtain and pulled the ejection handles. He was vaguely aware of Turner's acknowledgement. Straker saw the Phantom below him, saw Turner's chair and then his chute. In what seemed like hours Straker was in free fall. He felt the chute deployment as a physical blow.
Straker's eyes cleared. He saw the flames from the air as the ground rushed up toward him. Had anyone been in that building he wondered. The F-4 had gone out a true Kamikaze, crashing into the airfield's only structure. Straker hit the ground and rolled. He saw men running toward him.
Pulling his releases the chute blew away. Straker tumbled over. "Who the hell are you?" The voice was from one of the men. Straker noted his pickled green uniform, the latest experiment in uniforms from the Air Force. Straker shrugged off his landing and identified himself. He watched the confusion of the men around him. Of course, a war plane had just landed on them and exploded.
Was that gun fire? Straker saw a man running from the ruins of the flaming building. The figure's long silver hair was accented by a one piece white uniform. His speed and the way he dealt with those in his path belonged to a younger person. He supposed it was a man given that he had knocked aside an armed soldier like a child knocking over blocks. Straker made out Turner's chute. His backseater was up and moving about. The man was running toward Turner. One of the soldiers took aim at the old man and Turner. Straker, despite this being a flight over US territory, was nonetheless armed. He drew a .45 from under his flight jacket and shot at the soldier. No one was killing a man under his command. Straker's bullet chipped away at part of what was left of the building. That was enough to cause the soldier to dive for cover.
"Everyone stand down!" The voice was commanding. The berserk man ran at Turner who tried to push him away. "Don't let him touch you!"
Too late the man had Turner's head in his hands. Straker watched as his Wizo screamed and fell to his knees. There was a gun shot. The white figure twitched but held onto Turner. There were two more shots finally causing the attacker to let go of Straker's back seat driver and collapse. Several soldiers rushed toward the fallen man. Turner much to Straker's horror turned and ran into the flames of the burning structure.
"Surround the lab!" Straker turned and leveled his pistol at the voice. "Get that man!"
"Henderson!" Straker recognized the man from a POW rescue mission that Henderson had orchestrated and Straker had commanded. He had never known Henderson's rank; just that he was some kind of spook. "What's going on here?"
"Who was your partner? What kind of knowledge does he have?" Henderson was a man that needed answers.
"My Weapons System Operator, why?" he answered. Henderson was visibly dismayed. They heard a voice beyond the flames warning that someone, Turner he assumed, was running toward the radio blockhouse.
"He's not your Weapons System Operator anymore Straker. Put that stupid gun down and follow me." Older, Henderson nonetheless left the younger Straker behind. Ed sprinted and overtook him as they ran around the flames. Straker could just make out the tail of his plane.
"What the hell do you mean?" The two men cleared the jet fuel fed fire. Fifty yards away was what Straker guessed was the radio center. Just a small concrete block cube he could make out Turner and another man. Twenty-five yards, Straker saw Turner seize the other man and literally twist him, could hear the bones of the screaming man breaking. Turner tossed the man aside and ran into the blockhouse. Henderson and Straker closed.
Turner was bent over a transmitter box, his palms flat on it. Blinding electrical arcs jumped from the building's main feeder line and onto Turner. His back seater turned and looked at him. Henderson was raising his gun to shoot. Turner extended a hand and sent an arc of electricity toward Henderson. The older man was knocked down.
"Kill him Straker! He's not human anymore, chemical warfare experiment, kill him!" Henderson was down but not out.
Straker saw Turner look at him, eyes no longer the same. Turner didn't look angry, animalistic, drugged or anything human. Something really was wrong. Turner had run through fire, Straker could see the burns. No one could take that. Henderson weakly demanded once more for Straker to kill his WIZO. Sensing that things were wrong he aimed his pistol and fired. Turner, despite half of his head being gone still stood. Straker fired a last time.
Martin Czaplicki gave his new temporary partner an appraising look. A full head of dark brown hair complimented piercing light brown eyes. Marisol Foster's prim and athletic body amply filled out her smart business style pantsuit. Foster's English accent only heightened Czaplicki's curiosity about how such a person could be a part of the US Army's Criminal Investigation Command. He pointed left at the upcoming turn as Foster guided their US issued POS truck toward their destination. He watched her slow cautiously and give way to a battered old Chevy truck hauling a load of watermelons. The roadside fruit and vegetable stands were going to litter the highways in the next week.
"Not much to see Agent Foster, El Paso I mean." Czaplicki tried as well as he could to make some conversation. "First time here I guess?"
"I was born in Houston Agent Czaplicki. My father was British—a test pilot for Lockheed. He married an American." She glanced over at him as she drove off of the pavement onto a dirt road. Czaplicki could imagine those piercing brown eyes beneath her mirrored sunglasses. Foster laughed. "That is my stock introduction."
"Okay, then why did the Army send you out here to investigate a probable statutory rape?" Direct and to the point, that ought to do it he thought.
Foster chuckled. "Probing to find out why I'm here agent?" She nodded at the GPS. "The camper should be a mile further. Actually I'm here to combat an alien invasion and not the one from Mexico Agent Czaplicki."
Czaplicki issued a dismayed grunt. He suspected the real reason. "You are down here to prove that Army personnel are aiding the cartels. Washington creates problems and then blames them on others."
Foster licked her lips as she pulled into the camping area. The small camper had seen its better days. Parked in a wash near to the Rio Grande the old trailer was rusted and buckling out near the floor. The smell that assaulted Czaplicki's nose as he opened his door told him that the honey bucket was emptied somewhere nearby. He surveyed the area while Foster who had also gotten out, pulled her briefcase out from behind the seat and proceeded to slip into a shoulder holster that housed one monster of a pistol.
"Gonna shoot his pecker off with that Agent Foster?" Czaplicki guessed he was looking at .44 or perhaps even a .50 caliber handgun on Foster's side.
Private Marcel Simmons had failed to report into his barracks Sunday, three days ago. The next day local authorities came to Biggs Army Air Field with a warrant concerning some photos on a phone belonging to one 14 year old Charity Greer. The local Children and Youth Services had shared Greer's file with local PD and Czaplicki. The angelic Greer had been a frequent runaway and had just three months ago, two months before Simmons' placement at Biggs as an Air Traffic Control apprentice, had an abortion. Marty wasn't judgmental but clearly Greer was no innocent. Simmons on the other hand was a black from a small town in upper New York State. Czaplicki suspected that most of his gangster knowledge, reflected in pictures hanging in his locker, came from music and too many hours sitting before video games. Simmons had checked high on his ASVAB as well as receiving glowing endorsements from his drill instructors. If anyone was trouble Czaplicki suspected that it was Greer, using charms more suitable for an older teen on the naïve Simmons.
The two agents cautiously approached the camper. Greer's irate mother had told the El Paso PD that the couple might be here at her ex brother-in-laws' camp. It was eerily quiet, so much so that Czaplicki could hear the wind blowing the sand through the scrub brush, cactuses and Mesquite trees. Both of them, almost in unison, drew their side arms and took off the safeties. These camps were becoming fewer and fewer owing to occasional flooding but mostly to deadly drug mules that had no mercy for people with which they had chance encounters. It had occurred to Marty that they were just as likely to find this couple shot to death. He hoped that wasn't so. They stood to either side of the door. He nodded to Foster. She knocked loudly; the door opened slowly springing back from Foster's knock. Czaplicki loudly identified himself and then went in low. Foster followed taking high.
Seconds later they had cleared the camper's main living area. Shortly after that they concluded that the trailer was empty. The camper smelled of sour sweat and sex. The single pull out bed's mattress and bedclothes made a trail to the door. Likely someone had been pulled out of the bed, struggling probably. He followed Foster in holstering their weapons. Marty then reached into his back pocket for latex gloves. The blankets moved. Czaplicki heard the characteristic rattle before the viper crawled out from the pile of sheets pillows.
A fifteen year Army veteran Czaplicki had lain in ditches while scorpions had crawled over him, that being preferable to standing up during a firefight. But snakes held a terrible place in his mind. He froze for a split second. Foster did not. She had one hand around its neck while the other held the viper by its rattle. Czaplicki's mouth drop as the woman stared at the snake, stared into its eyes as if it was a person. She went to the camper door and flung it out.
"A desert scavenger agent," she remarked. "Fear of reptiles was noted in your dossier."
"My dossier?" he retorted, rubbing at a slight growth of beard. Army agents were permitted some small latitude when it came to grooming. "I'm not smuggling drugs agent."
"This is not about drugs agent, though that is the lesser evil of what could be wrong here." She surveyed the room as she spoke. So did Czaplicki.
He knelt gingerly and recovered a cell phone. Its cheap pink plastic case had a decal affixed to it proclaiming its owner a hot mama. Foster stood beside him as he searched its numbers and then photos and finally video. Greer was in her all glory on the bed. The young couple had recorded an intimate encounter. Czaplicki really didn't want to watch any of it but he realized that it had been recorded here. Foster made some critical comments about the couples' activities and Marty was about to turn off the phone's video when a blinding light obscured the screen. He bumped into Foster and for a second was keenly aware of her sexuality. Even from the phone's tiny speaker they could hear the couple's screams of terror.
"What the hell!" Czaplicki saw a red suited man—whatever. It looked like the man was wearing a hazmat suit. He had—a silver helmet. Was that a silver helmet? There were two men. They dragged the screaming couple out of the bed and out of the trailer. A bare foot kicked out, the phone's video shook and then turned gray. Probably timed out and shut off on the floor where Czaplicki had found it.
"Still think I'm after dirty Army officers and NCO's agent?" Her mocking smile was gone. "Draw your weapon and let's check the area."
He followed her out into the cool Texas afternoon. She went back to their vehicle and retrieved a small item from her case. It was a Geiger counter. He gulped as she turned it on ad waved its wand around. Now he was wishing that he was involved with the cartels. As dirty and dangerous as that was it was better than this alternative. He scanned the area. Vultures circled over where he knew another clearing lay.
"I don't think you'll need that." He nodded toward the circling scavenger birds. The two headed toward the clearing.
"What do you think we'll find there?" he asked her. Iran, Afghanistan and some time in South America had not left Czaplicki quite prepared for this.
"Probably nothing," she answered. "We've not had much success. But the timestamp on the girl's phone showed that they were taken early this morning. Perhaps we'll find some evidence. By the way, how do you like Texas?"
"It's my job. It is what it is agent. I was in it, over there, but a lot of the investigations were just idiot soldiers doing drugs, idiot soldiers drinking, you've heard it before I guess."
"Yes," she replied. They neared the open area. Czaplicki gulped and said a prayer as he made out two forms on the ground. It was what he thought as they drew closer but it was worse than he had assumed.
It was Simmons and Greer, what was left of them. Both had been opened up and gutted. Czaplicki didn't need advanced forensics training to tell that organs were missing. Simmons' head had been cut off at the top. The boy's brain was gone. Greer's face was a death mask of agony. Marty looked over the area. He mentally winced as he spotted another carcass. He raced over as the body's clothing became clear to him.
"It's Ray Somers, he's a county sheriff." He knelt beside the corpse. That body too had been butchered. "I met him volunteering for the Special Olympics. All the local cops do it. Good people…where in the hell is Stan—Stan Greenfield is Somers' partner. The sheriff's department always sends teams out."
"Do you know where Greenfield lives?" Foster's tone was emphatic. Czaplicki got on his cell and made some calls. He called for help out here but understood somehow that they had to find Greenfield.